If you listen to NPR / PRI in the U.S., you already know Jian Ghomeshi as an award-winning broadcaster, writer, musician, producer and host of the multimedia phenomenon known simply as “Q” — or as The Washington Post calls it, “the most popular new arts and culture radio show in America”. If you are Canadian, or at all familiar with Canadian media, pop culture, or the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), then you know Jian Ghomeshi is a household name in that country — and he is well on his way to becoming one in this country as you read this.
Born in London, England, of Iranian descent, Jian Ghomeshi is smart, talented and handsome — a triple threat with a sharp tongue, unabashedly advocating for the voiceless among us along his journey to the top. He was recently named one of Maclean’s Magazine’s “50 Most Important People In Canada” and one of Toronto Life’s “50 Most Influential Torontonians”, just the latest bragging rights for a man with more awards than I can list here. At 46, Ghomeshi has toured the world as a successful musician, released a best-selling memoir, and transformed himself into a bonafide national treasure.
Ghomeshi has interviewed the likes of Leonard Cohen, Al Gore, Jay-Z, Woody Allen, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Barbara Walters, Tom Waits, William Shatner, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and countless others since “Q” took Canada by storm, and this Thursday night he will be adding a slew of Portland talent to that list. Carrie Brownstein from “Portlandia”, author Cheryl Strayed, musician Colin Meloy from The Decemberists, author Daniel H. Wilson and The Thermals (amongst others) are all booked as guests at a sold-out live taping of “Q” at the Aladdin Theater.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Jian Ghomeshi this week to chat about his life, the show, LGBTQ rights, music, mental health and what we can expect from this Thursday’s show. Click on the graphic below for more info about this week’s “Q” taping in Portland, and read my interview with Jian just below that…and for those of you who were lucky enough to get tickets before they sold out, I’ll see you there!
Logan Lynn: Thanks for talking with me today, Jian!
Jian Ghomeshi: Absolutely. I’m stoked.
Lynn: Shall we start with a “Well, hi there”?
Ghomeshi: (laughs) Is this an audio interview?
Lynn: It’s not. That was just a bit of fun for our readers who are familiar with your show, and for one of our QBlog writers named Paul Fukui, who is a big fan.
(For the rest of you, “Well, hi there.” can be heard coming from Jian Ghomeshi at every entrance to his broadcasts.)
Lynn: I’m so excited! Will this be your first time in Portland?
Ghomeshi: It’s not my first time personally I’ve been in Portland, but it is the first time “Q” has come to Portland for sure. It’s going to be interesting, because we do the live show in theaters in Canada and we’ve done it in a few places in the states — in Chicago, in New York, in Salt Lake City — but people are much more familiar with the show in Canada at this point. We launched about seven years ago. You also hear a truncated version of the show, an hour long version on NPR / PRI in the states, as opposed to the 90 minute or 2 hour version in Canada, so I think it will be an interesting contrast to some of the Canadian shows we do. Not only just because we’re doing 2,000 seaters in Canada now, but that there will be some elements of the show that I think people in Portland are unfamiliar with so far. For example, I begin the show each day with an opening dialogue, kind-of an essay, and that doesn’t air in the U.S. version. I think on Thursday night people will be like “What’s he doing going on a rambling, personal monologue?” (laughs) — but they’ll get used to it.
Lynn: Performance art!
Lynn: So “Q” started 7 years ago?
Ghomeshi: April 16th, 2007.
Lynn: Why the name? Why “Q”?
Ghomeshi: It was really important to me, and I think the whole team, when we were launching, that we launch something with a name that didn’t telegraph “The Arts Show”, “The Culture Show”, “The Politics Show” but rather something that would be mindful. We did something that, now that the show has fortunately turned into a big success, it’s normalized, but at the time — and even still, within the current media culture — we did something that isn’t supposed to work. We launched a show that features long-form interviews in an era where everybody says that younger generations especially have ADD and everything has to be sound bites. We also launched, more significantly to the point about the name, a show that is a variety program and really stretches the definition of culture about as broadly as we can, from literature and dance and punk rock to sports and politics and international affairs. It was important to create the conditions where people didn’t know what they were getting so that we would define that. So the hope was that the letter Q would be defined by us, and I think to a certain extent, that’s happened and that’s very gratifying.
Lynn: Well, in my world, LGBTQ world, the Q usually stands for “Queer” or “Questioning” so I had a piqued interest initially because I thought it was a queer program or whatever…
Ghomeshi: We’ve gotten that for years. I still get people going “I love your show. I love you. It’s great that you do a queer show” — which is awesome. You know, it’s fine.
Lynn: While we’re on that subject, you’re a longtime supporter of LGBTQ causes.
Lynn: So that makes sense that some folks might draw that connection.
Lynn: What made you a champion for queer and trans communities?
Ghomeshi: You know, ever since I was, I guess when I was in high school and then going into University, I came up through — I mean, I always had an interest in politics and activism — but I was in the theater scene and in the music scene and in really progressive circles in Toronto where I grew up. My minor in University was Gender Studies, and it was always something that I never understood, the sort-of bigotry and discrimination around race, around gender, and particularly around sexual orientation. So, I mean (pauses) and I went through my own path around that, too, where I had to discover my own orientation, who I am, and so I just…it always just came naturally to me to be…to feel not just comfortable within the community, but also very defiantly supportive. I’ve always said one of my favorite days of the year is — we have a huge Pride day in Toronto — and that’s like a highlight of the year. So, I mean, it isn’t something at this point that seems…that is particularly manufactured. And our crew! I’ve got this team of producers who are really the most incredible people in terms of super sharp, smart, young minds. It’s a progressive team, especially around social issues.
Lynn: And you were just in Sochi, Russia for the Olympics, right?
Ghomeshi: (laughs) Yeah. That’s a good segue.
Lynn: My specialty! Were you afraid at all that you’d be jailed for “Gay Propaganda” for things you had said or promoted on the show previously, or perhaps that you would not be able to bite your tongue in a moment and say something while you were there that could potentially land you in prison?
Ghomeshi: There were a few things that I said — I never really felt that necessarily. It only freaked me out when others said that to me. Like, there were a few things I did while I was on the air there, and people were writing me and sort-of going “You’re going to get jailed. Be careful.” and, you know, when Pussy Riot got arrested we were there at that moment and we had Nadya’s husband on who was with them when they got arrested and then I had Brian Boytano on and it was just…and in general I was trying to be as real and journalistic as possible as well about Putin’s games, so it was a very strange time, but it was also clear that they had bigger security concerns to worry about than, you know, our show.
Lynn: I’m not asking you to speak for all of Canada — but what are some of the main cultural differences between the United States and Canada that have, in your view, allowed for marriage equality to become a reality so much sooner in your country than it is for us here in the states?
Ghomeshi: First of all, I think we, especially as Canadians, overstate the differences between Canada and the United States because we’re sensitive about traveling around the world and not just being considered a 51st state. You know, we have our own history and we recognize the fact that we tend to know a lot about American history but that Americans don’t necessarily know a lot about us, their number one trading parter — but there is a pretty important history of social justice and progressive politics in Canada. I think one thing that is different about us is that we don’t have a Bible belt that is one third of our population, and church and state are not as integrated as they appear to be in the states. Our Prime Minister doesn’t finish speeches by saying “God bless Canada”. It’s not as overt in terms of what we do, so it’s interesting, because issues like gay marriage — it’s really not an issue in Canada. It hasn’t been for a couple decades, I suppose. It certainly doesn’t mean we don’t have bigots here or homophobia, but it is kind-of part of our tradition to maybe be more inclusive. The same generalizes around race. I mean, I’m in Toronto where it’s the most multi-racial city in the world, so we sometimes look at the U.S. and go “huh.” It’s a very different history. Now, having said all of that, we have our issues here, too. In fact, we used to think of ourselves as much more progressive, say, when it came to pot and now you have states in America full-on legalizing pot in a way that we haven’t in Canada, so…there you go.
Lynn: Yeah, we’re catching up. How has all of that Canadian inclusivity played out for the trans community? You mentioned you minored in Gender Studies in college, and I know you are a longtime advocate for Women’s rights. Would you say Canada is also more progressive around gender issues and women’s rights or is it just the gay pot thing?
Ghomeshi: I’d like to think we are, but there’s a long way to go in terms of gender equity in Canada, as well. I couldn’t speak for the trans community, but I think, yeah. There is a really strong tradition of progressive thought in Canada, more aligned with social democracies of Scandinavia and Europe, so maybe it’s a little in contradistinction to the U.S. in that realm, but I wouldn’t want to romanticize equality in Canada either, because we have a lot of issues here as well.
Lynn: That’s the thing about issues. They’re everywhere! You talk about that extensively in your book “1982”, recalling some pretty painful experiences just being Iranian in Canada in the 80’s. I’ll bet the racism you have experienced is not just limited to way back then, though. How has that played into your career?
Ghomeshi: I think that it’s played into every part of me. I mean, I’m a first generation immigrant. I grew up in a place that was considered by the U.S. — the most important, powerful country in the world – “the evil place”, part of the “axis of evil”, and I grew up resenting my parents for coming from this horrible place until I got old enough to realize that it wasn’t a horrible place. That was being projected onto me by folks who didn’t really understand Iranian culture or people, and that the people are distinct from the oppressive leaders of the regime. But every part of that plays into every part of me. I think everything from my ambition (laughs) which comes from being a first generation kid with a dad saying “Work harder, you gotta’ try to improve yourself”, to my insecurities; self identifying as an outsider and never quite fitting in. When I was doing the tour with the book a lot of people were saying “You know, when you were a kid and you were in grade 9 and an outsider, what does it feel like now that you’re a big success?” and those feelings never go away, so that’s been a major part of my life. I also think that maybe in a positive way that helps me with an empathy towards other first generation immigrants or people with similar experiences in Canada and the U.S. who see somebody who, in relative terms, has been a younger broadcaster who comes from the new sort-of globalized world, so maybe in some strange way that’s become as asset.
Lynn: Well, it’s a particular type of training, no doubt — for the world.
Ghomeshi: I’ll tell you this: I would have never thought when I was a young teen, as an Iranian guy with an Iranian background with my name and my color skin and all that, that I could be on a show that the Washington Post called the fastest growing, most popular show in America. I just would have thought that’s not an option. You know, “I’m too weird, I’m from the bad place”, all that stuff. So that feels like progress.
Lynn: That’s got to be healing. I’ve experienced that on some level, too as a queer musician, and have moments where I’m like “Wow. The thing that used to get me beat up just booked me a festival!” It can be a really strange re-entry into yourself or your experience.
Ghomeshi: Wow, that’s really good to hear. Although, when you are a million seller six years from now and somebody says to you “So how does it feel now that you are no longer an outsider?” you’ll be like “Ummm, no. I still feel like that.” (laughs)
Lynn: Is that a new kind of “other”, though? Do you think fame has made that experience better for you or has it been agitating?
Ghomeshi: That’s a really good question, actually. I was interviewing Marc Maron and we talked about that, whether success leads to self-confidence, and how much validation really comes from it. I think, ultimately, it can help with self-esteem. It’s nice to have a show that’s popular or a book that became a best-seller or whatever, and not to get too gushy, but I think when one really starts to talk about feeling included and self-love, those things don’t find their outlet and don’t find their panacea in material things or wealth or success or ratings. That’s something that’s much deeper that you have to find, and it has to do with personal growth and friends and love. Not to mention, becoming a public figure in Canada has its foibles, too. You sort-of open yourself up to the internet (laughs) and all of that, right?
Lynn: Yeah, live TV and radio are rich with opportunities for internal and external critique. How do you deal with that? I know you are also committed to therapy and are a proponent for self care and breaking down stigmas surrounding issues of mental health. Has that been a large part of your process with this stuff?
Lynn: Is that still a top priority?
Ghomeshi: Well, it’s had to be. I’m in therapy and it’s really important to me. It’s kind-of essential, because it’s been, in my case, important to personal growth. I think, for some people, reading or meditation or other forms can be, but therapy’s been really important to me and continues to be, so I can’t help but be pro-therapy.
Lynn: Well, I don’t know if you have training in conflict facilitation, but I sense that you find yourself in a therapeutic role often on the show…
Ghomeshi: That’s so funny. So many people say that. So many people. I mean, even back to the Billy Bob and everything, people have talked about me taking on the role of a therapist as the interviewer, and so many interviewees who have come on the show have kind-of gone “Is this therapy?” I think part of it is expressing an openness to go to those places with someone, too — which is what you’re doing in this interview, which is interesting. You know, you’re clearly somebody who has either been in therapy or somebody who is interested in those issues or you wouldn’t be asking about it.
Lynn: Absolutely, and I think that’s part of why people are so drawn to your show, right? You create a safe space to get people to talk in ways that they’re not talking on other shows.
Ghomeshi: I hope so.
Lynn: You mentioned Billy Bob Thorton. I was going to ask about what your favorite on-air moment has been on the show. I can’t imagine that was it… (laughs)
Ghomeshi: No. Although, that brought a certain popularity to the show — that was also not a horrible thing. I do a daily show that I’ve done for 7 years and I have the good fortune of having amazing guests that want to come on, so there’s been a number of moments that have been incredible. Getting to interview Joni Mitchell at her house last year, or Bjork in New York, or — I don’t know if you know Mandy Patinkin?
Lynn: I do! The actor from “The Princess Bride”?
Ghomeshi: Yeah! He’s Inigo Montoya. You know, (puts on accent) “Prepare to die.” (laughs) That’s his most famous role, but he was in a number of other roles including the latest, which was with Claire Danes. He’s such a special guy and such an interesting man. That interview, for example, if you go look it up on YouTube, just watch or listen to 5 minutes of it. It’s really intense and really special. So many moments I love flood to my mind but those would be up there. Leonard Cohen probably, as well.
Lynn: That list was rad! I know music is a big part of your life. You profile a bunch of different kinds of bands and musicians on the show, and you have a history of being a performer yourself. Do you still make music? Is that still part of your life?
Ghomeshi: It is, in as much as I manage some artists and I produce — but in terms of my own music-making, it’s really hard to. My life is so dominated by this show, especially now that it’s become this multi-platform show and it’s a pretty rigorous thing to do each day. I find, when it comes to my music, my chops just aren’t great. I can play at home and stuff. Sometimes a band will come into Studio Q and I’ll sit in on drums or sing with them, but in terms of actually doing something like recording a new record, I would feel like I’d need to take some time off and get my chops back. I just feel rusty and don’t have the time to properly sing or play each day. I spent 10 years on a road in a band, so it’s like saying to a ballet dancer “Do you still jump on stage?”
Ghomeshi: You know, I’d like to but I’d have to train again.
Lynn: Sure…and obviously we’d both like this show to go on forever and ever and ever, but what would life post-“Q” look like? Would that involve music? Tell me your dreams for the future, sir.
Ghomeshi: I feel like right now I’m very committed to “Q” and my deal with the network has always been as long as it’s growing I’ll stick with it. I’m just not the kind of person who wants to have a nice job and will kind-of go and do that while things are flatlining. I always feel like I have to be learning; like there has to be a challenge. Growth is really important to me. I can’t imagine doing something that doesn’t somehow satiate my creativity, my desire to be creative. “Q” is a creative exercise for me. I write for the show. I’m performing on the air. You know, I’m discovering. So those are really important elements, and also, I’ve always been driven to do things that help in whatever small way to create social change, so this is an outlet to try and affect things. Maybe it’s just by interviewing trans folks and bringing their stories to the floor, maybe it’s putting a band like Tribe Called Red on and spreading the gospel of indigenous music, or just doing the essays that I do. I know at this point that I wouldn’t just do anything for money or fame or I wouldn’t be a public broadcaster — but I’m thrilled by how big this show has grown, and it’s really exciting to be doing something that feels like it has substance that can also be successful.
Lynn: That sounds like a dream, Jian. Thanks again for chatting with me today. I’m really looking forward to the show on Thursday!
Ghomeshi: You must say Hello!
Lynn: You got it. Have a safe trip!